Obituary: Alicia Melamed Adams

Artist and survivor of the Holocaust who retained her belief in a loving world


Artist Alicia Melamed Adams, whose colourful and lively paintings of flowers and lovers masked the truth of the horrors she endured during the Holocaust, has died aged 95.

In the 1960s, she painted a series of works exploring her experiences during the Second World War, but these were not exhibited publicly until 30 years later. Two of her paintings are now in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Alicia was born in 1927 in Boryslav, Galicia to Izydor and Szarlotte Goldschlag. Her father was an oil-mining engineer in a region that was then the fourth largest oil producer in the world. Her mother had studied art in Vienna and specialised in tapestries. Alicia was their second child and had a much-loved older brother, Josef.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, the family were on holiday. Isidor arranged for his wife and children to head back to Drohobycz, the large town near her birthplace to live with Alicia’s maternal grandparents.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact meant their local area was taken over by the Soviets and Josef and Alicia joined the communist youth movement where she learned — and never forgot — how to sing such songs as Long live father Stalin.

They went to the local public secondary school where Alicia was taught art by the renowned Polish-Jewish artist Bruno Schulz, a friend of her parents who owned works by the artist. She recalled the shock of his murder by a Gestapo officer who shot him at random in the street.

His often sado-masochistic subject matter gave her nightmares when she was young, but she was very proud to have been his pupil and indeed knew the importance of the town’s Jewish artistic heritage, as it was also the home of the great 19th-century Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb.

Things changed dramatically in June 1941 when the Germans took over the area. The family were moved into the town ghetto where Josef worked in the brick factory and Alicia on the construction of the new Gestapo headquarters, because the officers liked to have pretty girls around them.

It was always dangerous and other girls were shot for no reason. After the war when Alicia returned to the area she found among the rubble a photograph of herself at work.

One day Josef was rounded up and taken to the Janowska concentration camp where, despite his father’s efforts to save him, he perished. Until the end of her life Alicia treasured his school certificates that showed his academic prowess. Her painting Two Frightened Children, now in the Imperial War Museum, shows her and her brother looking out at the viewer in terror.

Alicia then began working with her parents in a factory. But on 24 July 1943, the workers were all rounded up and imprisoned. They knew that they would be taken to the nearby woods and shot.

However, Alicia was saved in remarkable circumstances. In prison she met her friend Poldek Weiss, whose tailor father made a suit for the head of the Gestapo, which led to Weiss’s release.

Poldek was very taken with Alicia and claimed she was his wife so she was also released. Her parents were shot the next day. Alicia’s painting The Parting, in which she depicts the moment she left her family, is also in the Imperial War Museum.

With Poldek and his family, Alicia was moved to another camp. The working there prepared an underground hiding place complete with toilet and a supply of dried food.

When the next round-up came, they managed to hide there for a week before moving on to another hiding place, which Alicia paid for with a diamond ring her mother had sewn into her own coat. She had thrust it into Alicia’s arms in their final parting moment.

When the war ended, the Weiss family decided to move to the USA, but Alicia and Poldek’s relationship had deteriorated and Alicia chose not to accompany them.

She stayed on in Poland and met Izrael Natan Melamed, a survivor of the Lublin, Majdan Tatarski and Warsaw ghettos, who had also lost his entire family. They were married in Warsaw in 1946 by the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Rabbi Dawid Kahane, whose wife lent Alicia a veil. Alicia’s wedding jacket is in the archive of The Imperial War Museum.

The couple went to Paris in 1948 and then moved to London where her mother’s sister and family had fled before the war. Her son Charles was born there in 1951.

Izrael changed his name to Adam Adams and prospered as a businessman. In the late 1950s, Alicia decided to enrol in evening classes, hoping to improve her French, but the classes were already full so she attended art classes instead. Her talent was spotted and she went on to study at St Martin’s School of Art and then Sir John Cass College.

She was taught there by well-known teachers of the 1950-1980 period, David Graham, Roland Vivian Pitchforth, Maggie Hambling and clergyman John Pelling, who all became her friends.

She showed regularly at the Society of Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries and was a member of the Ridley Art Group. The paintings she showed were vibrant and joyous, often featuring her trademark symbol, a white mug with a heart on it reflecting her belief in a loving world.

She attended pottery classes, decorating her pots with flowers and beautiful women. I first met her in 1993, when one of her works entered the Ben Uri Collection, of which I was then curator.

We became firm friends but I knew nothing of her early years.

In the 1960s, encouraged by her friend the Bolivian artist Fernando Montes, she painted her Holocaust memories but did not show them until the late 1990s in an exhibition to raise funds for Amnesty International.

She was immediately asked to exhibit the entire series at the Ark T Centre in Cowley, Oxford, sponsored by the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Richard Harries. She asked for my assistance in preparing for the exhibition. I helped her write her story with a mixed sense of horror and disbelief that such things could have happened to one of the most optimistic, positive and funny women I have had the good fortune to meet.

The Holocaust paintings were widely exhibited from then on and in 2008 two were acquired for the Imperial War Museum after being included in its exhibition Unspeakable.

Her works were regularly shown at Ben Uri and she had a solo exhibition at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in 2014. She and Adam, who died in 2020, both recorded their stories for the Imperial War Museum’s sound archive.

She is survived by her son Charles, grandchildren Craig, Leigh, Melissa and Nicholas, and great-grandson Felix.

Alicia Melamed Adams: born September 26, 1927. Died October 12, 2022

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